Ever chat to your friend about baking bread, and you're both confused between needing some flour and kneading some flour because neither of you has provided further context? That's an example of homonymy, words with different meanings but pronounced and/or spelt the same. The definition of homonymy is rather broad, as it covers both the pronunciation and the spelling. , which we will explain further with some examples and comparisons to other lexically ambiguous words!
What is the meaning of homonymy? When two or more words are homonyms, these words are pronounced and/or spelt the same, but their meanings aren't related to each other. Because of these multiple meanings, if a homonymous word is used with little context, it can cause lexical ambiguity (confusion caused by words that have more than one possible meaning).
Look at these examples of homonymy and find one word that they all have in common and think about its meaning in each sentence:
- Do you have a rubber band?
- My band is performing tonight.
- We band every bird to track their movements.
Fig. 1 - Band can refer to rubber bands.
Fig. 2 - Band can refer to a rock band.
Each sentence above uses the word band. There is nothing that connects the three different meanings of band except for the spelling and pronunciation. Therefore, the word band is a homonym in each case.
Study tip: For words to be classified as homonyms, they need to meet two criteria:
Have different meanings, e.g. meaning 1 and meaning 2.
Be pronounced the same, spelt the same, or both.
In case you were unsure as to how to pronounce the word 'homonymy', it is pronounced like this:
Some other examples of homonymy are:
- Your essay fails to address the main issue. = give attention to a problem (verb)
- What is your address? = a location (noun)
- You can't park your car here. = to leave a vehicle somewhere for some time (verb).
- Are you heading to the park now? = a public place with fields and trees (noun).
- After the accident, he needs some tender loving care. = gentle (adjective).
- Your firm submitted the lowest tender. = a formal offer to supply goods or do work at a stated price (noun).
- Every night she rocks her baby to sleep. = to move backwards and forwards (verb).
- Yesterday's storm forced the ship onto the rocks. = a mass of rock standing in the sea (noun).
- Someone left you a rose. = a type of flower (noun).
- The price rose significantly last month. = to increase (verb - the past form of 'rise').
Types of homonymy
Homonymy can be further subdivided into more specific types that only concern either spelling or pronunciation. These are called homophones and homographs respectively.
Fig 3 - Homonyms can be further broken down into homophones and homographs.
Homophones are words that have different meanings and spellings but are pronounced the same. Some examples of homophones are:
Meat - meet
- Sorry, I don't eat meat. (noun)
- Let's meet again tomorrow! (verb)
- The sun is hiding behind the clouds. (noun)
- My son is going to university next year. (noun)
Plain - plane
- I like your idea. It's plain and simple. (adjective)
- The plane is having some problems at the moment. (noun)
Homographs are words that have different meanings and pronunciations but are spelt the same. Some examples of homographs are:
- / ˈRekɔːd / - noun: She has a criminal record for drink driving.
- / rɪˈkɔːd / - verb: Our family always record every birthday party on video.
- / bəʊ / - noun: She aimed her bow slowly.
- / baʊ / - verb: He had to bow to the Queen.
- / ˈDezət / - noun: They travelled through the desert for days without water.
- / dɪˈzɜːt / - verb: He chose to desert his family.
Study tip: If you're not sure how a word should be pronounced correctly, go to your favourite dictionary website. There you can find recordings of standard pronunciations.
Homonyms in literature
In literature, homonymy is usually used to create rhythmic effects or multiple meanings that often cause:
When homonyms (including homophones and homographs) are used without a concrete reference, it can lead to lexical ambiguity. For example:
Do you know how to hold a bat?
Without context, it isn't clear whether the sentence refers to the animal or a baseball bat.
A pun is a literary device that plays on words using two identical or similar sounding words with different and/or contradictory meanings. The first meaning is usually quite reasonable, while the secondary meaning is less sensitive.
Therefore I lie with her, and she with me,
And in our faults by lies we flattered be.
- Shakespeare, 'Sonnet 138', (1609).
The first lie means 'lying down' and the second means 'an untrue statement'. The two words reflect the sonnet's main theme which is about two lovers whose relationship is coloured by lies. However, instead of confronting the untruths, they decide to do nothing and enjoy what they have.
Shrewdness / humorous effects
Homonym wordplay is more effective in spoken communication than in writing because the humorous effects are more pronounced when the spelling is not defined. However, if the homonyms are cleverly constructed, they can produce some witty results.
- Waiter, will the pancakes be long? - No, sir, round
- What did the chess piece say before bed? - Knight knight
- What is ice cream's favorite day of the week? - Sundae
Have a look at some examples of homonyms, homophones, and homographs used in literature:
Example 1: Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (1597), Act 1 Scene 4.
Nay, gentle Romeo, we must have you dance.
Not I, believe me. You have dancing shoes
With nimble soles. I have a soul of lead
So stakes me to the ground I cannot move.
You are a lover; borrow Cupid's wings,
And soar with them above a common (1) bound.
I am too sore empierced with his shaft
To soar with his light feathers, and so (2) bound,
I cannot (3) bound a pitch above dull woe;
Under love's heavy burden do I sink.
In this excerpt, you can see that the word bound is used three times with different meanings but the same pronunciation and spelling (homonyms).
- (1) bound = the rest of the people
Mercutio suggests Romeo should dance, but he says no. Mercutio responds by saying “borrow Cupid's wings and you'll be able to soar above us”.
- (2) bound = constrained; and,
- (3) bound = leap. Romeo still refuses Mercutio's suggestion and here he replies, I'm too sore after being hit by the Cupid's arrow to soar with his light feather. I'm being constrained by this love. I can't leap.
This example shows that homonyms can cause multiple interpretations/ambiguity which can affect the perception of the reader/audience. Shakespeare loved to use puns in his plays and sonnets. Puns can provoke thought, clarify or explain something, entertain the audience, or a combination of these.
Example 2: Shakespeare, Henry VI (1591), Part 2 Act 1 Scene 1
Unto the main! O father, Maine is lost; (1)
That Maine which by main force Warwick did win, (2)
And would have kept so long as breath did last!
Main chance, father, you meant; but I meant Maine, (3)
Which I will win from France, or else be slain
Shakespeare uses the combination of main - Maine several times in this excerpt from Henry VI. These are homophones. Warwick repeats the word main as a transitional means (sound unit) to redefine Maine, the French county. Then, he adds meant (a variant of main - Maine) in between the last homophonic pair (3).
Reading the text may not cause ambiguity since you can read the words and know exactly what each word means. However, if you watch the play or only hear this wordplay, it may cause some confusion.
Important to note: Keep in mind that language is constantly changing, and so is pronunciation. What were homophones in the 16-17th century (when Shakespeare was writing), may not be homophones now, and vice versa. Modern pronunciation can prevent the audience from experiencing the language as Shakespeare intended it. That is why in 2004, the Globe Theater changed the pronunciation of Shakespeare's play to its 'original pronunciation'.
Homophone and homonym
Example 3: Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland (1865).
'How is bread made?'
'I know that!' Alice cried eagerly. 'You take some flour ─'
'Where do you pick the flower?' the white queen asked. 'In the garden or in the hedges?'
'Well, it isn't picked at all' Alice explained; it's ground ─ '
'How many acres of ground?' said the White Queen.
The words flour - flower are homophones because they're pronounced the same but written differently. Of course, to make bread we need flour, not flower, but by playing with words in this way, Carroll provides some comical impressions of the characters.
The words ground - ground are homonyms because they're pronounced and written the same but have different meanings. The first ground refers to 'the surface of the earth', while the second one means 'an area of land'.
Like the previous examples, this piece from Alice in Wonderland shows that homonymy can be humorous, but at the same time, can cause ambiguity.
Important to note: To decide whether a pair of words are homophones, you need to check their pronunciation. However, this can be tricky as different individuals may pronounce things differently depending on their background (regional accents, sociolects, etc.). Homophonic words are then determined by the standard pronunciation. If you're not sure how a word is pronounced in Standard English, go to your favourite dictionary and listen to the pronunciation recordings.
What is the difference between homonymy and polysemy?
If you read or hear two words that are written or pronounced the same but have different meanings, they are likely to be either an example of homonymy or polysemy. Deciding what kind of relationship the two words have can be challenging, but not once you understand the differences between these terms.
- Are words with different meanings but with the same pronunciation and/or spelling.
- Are listed under multiple dictionary entries.
- Can be verb-noun combination: to address - an address, to rock - a rock, to park - a park.
- Refers to a word with multiple meanings.
- Are listed under a single dictionary entry.
- Must stem from the same word class, eg noun-noun: mouse (an animal - computer device), wings (parts of birds for flying - a building section), beam (a line of light - a piece of wood).
Homonymy vs. polysemy example
Let's take the word rose.
First, analyze the multiple meanings and word class. Rose has two meanings (unrelated) and two different word classes:
- a flower (noun) and,
- past form of rise (verb).
Second, if the words have multiple forms (multiple entries in a dictionary), eg a verb and noun, they are homonyms. If the two words stem from a single form (one entry in a dictionary), eg a verb or noun, they are polysemies. The word rose has two word forms: a noun and a verb. Thus, rose is a homonym.
Third, check if the different meanings are related. The two meanings of rose ('a flower' and 'the past form of rise') are not related. This further proves that rose is a homonym.
On the other hand, the word bank ('of a river' and 'a financial institution') is an example of polysemy because it only has one form (noun) and both meanings are related. Take a look at the diagram below for visual aid.
Fig. 4 - Homonymy deals with unrelated meanings, whereas polysemy deals with related meanings.
From the diagram, we can conclude that both homonymous and polysemic words have multiple meanings, but what distinguishes them is the number of forms the words have and the relation between the different meanings:
- Homonymy: multiple forms (several dictionary entries) and unrelated meanings.
- Polysemy: a single form (one dictionary entry) and related meanings.
Homonymy - Key takeaways
- Homonymy defines words with different meanings but with the same pronunciation and/or spelling.
- Homonymy is the broad term for homophones and homographs.
- Homophones are words with different meanings but the same pronunciation, while homographs are words with different meanings and pronunciations but the same spelling.
- Homonyms are usually used to create rhythmic effects and multiple meanings which may cause ambiguity, puncture, and shrewdness or humorous effects.
- Homonymy differs from polysemy - polysemy refers to words with several related meanings but listed under one dictionary entry.
Homonyms are two words which can have the same spelling or pronunciation, but very different meanings. Some good homonyms examples include 'bear', which is both the name of an animal and a word meaning 'tolerating something'.What is the meaning of homonymy? ›
Homonymy is the relationship between words that are homonyms—words that have different meanings but are pronounced the same or spelled the same or both. It can also refer to the state of being homonyms. The word homonym can be used as a synonym for both homophone and homograph.What are the 20 examples of homonyms? ›
|accept - take in||except - other than|
|real - factual||reel - roll|
|right - correct; not left||write - scribble|
|ring - encircle||wring - squeeze|
|road - street||rode - past tense of ride|
- Homophones sound the same but are often spelled differently.
- Homographs have the same spelling but do not necessarily sound the same.
Using the broad definition in which any two words that share the same spelling or the same pronunciation are homonyms, it's possible to define five types of homonym in the English language. These are capitonyms, heteronyms, homographs, homophones and polysemes.